Rethinking Metternich, Standpoint Magazine
“The historian is not yet born,” the Austrian state chancellor Clemens Wenzel von Metternich complained in 1829, “who will describe the numerous events of the first decades of the 19th century.” At the time, Metternich had good reason to ponder his legacy. Over the preceding two years, he had watched Europe’s great powers isolate Austria in the latest crisis involving the Ottoman Empire. The intricate system of European diplomacy that he had helped to devise a little over a decade earlier at the Congress of Vienna seemed to be in ruins. While Austria’s isolation would be short-lived—Metternich managed to rehabilitate the concert format following a chance encounter with the Russian foreign minister at the baths in Carlsbad—his remaining years would be marked by constant upheaval. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out, it was Metternich whose effigy the mobs across Europe burned as a symbol of reaction, repression and control.
More than most statesmen of his time, Metternich thought about history and his place in it. Like Churchill and Kissinger, he took an active hand in shaping the image of himself that would be passed down. He took meticulous notes, kept every scrap of paper and composed autobiographical memoranda with future historians in mind. He distrusted the judgment of contemporaries, who were too close to events and lacked the “calmness and impartiality” that only time and distance—and access to his archives—could bring.